For crowds in downtown Anchorage, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race starts with snow dumped on local streets – but for volunteers, The Last Great Race begins with a straw drop.

This week about 60 people helped kick off the 2019 Iditarod season by helping distribute the material – on which sled dogs sleep – to checkpoints along the trail.

"We're sending out a thousand-plus bales of straw," said race marshal Mark Nordman. "This is just bedding for the dogs, and next week is food drop."

The Schultz farms in Delta sent three semi-truckloads of straw and hay to Anchorage for the drop. The bales were unloaded at Air Land Transport in Anchorage, with each placed separately into a large blue bag to keep them from littering aircraft.

"It's the only way we can transport," Nordman said. "A lot of them have to go in a small airplane. Straw bales are around 35 to 40 pounds and the hay bales about 60. The hay is for the horses around Rainy Pass."

Each pallet is weighed to determine its shipping cost.

"If we have 400 pounds on a pallet, it gets calculated for postage so it can be shipped," said Iditarod volunteer Jennifer Ambrose.

The straw will be delivered by mail to hubs in McGrath and Unalakleet.

"Anywhere from Rohn to Nome, we basically calculate about one bale per musher per checkpoint plus a few extra," Ambrose said. "Some are there for when dogs are left. It's a whole calculation, because near the end of the race there are less teams."

Most of the bales are sent using bypass mail rates to rural Alaska.

"We also have a Willow flyout that will happen on the 16th and 17th of this month," Nordman said. "The Iditarod Air Force will fly out to Rainy Pass, Finger Lake, Skwentna and Yentna. It's a huge logistical deal."

Each bale receives a tag that signifies what checkpoint it will be delivered to. Once set up at the checkpoint, it's all up to the mushers.

"Each musher comes over to the pile and drags their bale over to their dog team," Nordman said. "The mushers do a lot of work. They have their food bags, the drop bags that come in next week."

With just weeks to go before this year's race Nordman said both coastal and Alaska Range areas of the Iditarod trail have deep snow cover. Some areas have seen their deepest snow accumulations in 20 years.

"I know our trailbreakers will be out next week," Nordman said. "They'll head out February 12th and spend 10 to 15 days out there working on Dalzell Gorge. That's normal, to put in the gorge and getting everybody ready."

The 2019 Iditarod begins with its Anchorage ceremonial start on March 2, at 10 a.m. Teams run an 11-mile trek for spectators and fans.

On March 3, the race restart gets under way at 2 p.m. in Willow with the teams officially starting their roughly 1,000-mile journey to Nome.

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